A cautionary tale for those in the real food/sustainable agriculture movement . . . .
On March 23, the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York handed down a ruling against the FDA, telling the agency it had to do something about a problem the agency had identified a long, long time ago - the negative effect of antibiotics in animal feed on the health of humans consuming the meat from those animals.
But, the FDA is at the heart of the practice, having officially sanctioned use of antibiotics to stimulate growth and improve feed efficiency in food-producing animals, beginning in the 1950s. So, the FDA giveth . . . and the FDA is ordered by the court to taketh away. Take heed, fellow foodies.
About 20 years after sanctioning the practice of feeding antibiotics to animals whose meat is intended for human consumption, the FDA recognized that “sub-therapeutic” use of antibiotics on animals whose meat is intended for human consumption poses threats to both animal and human health, primarily through the proliferation of so-called “superbugs” that are resistant to antibiotics. But, what was an agency to do, having already sanctioned the practice? How about completely ignore the problem for nearly 30 years? Sounds like a (government) plan! Until now . . .
In its ruling on March 23, the court found that the FDA had shirked its responsibility for ensuring the safety of the food supply by failing to take any action to formally evaluate whether the use of antibiotics in the feed of healthy animals is safe despite knowing the hazards:
For over thirty years, the FDA has taken the position that the widespread use of certain antibiotics in lives for purposes other than disease treatment poses a threat to health.
. . .
In the intervening years, the scientific evidence of the risks to human health from the widespread use of antibiotics in livestock has grown, and there is no evidence that the FDA has changed its position that such uses are not shown to be safe.
So, despite recognizing the risks to human health posed by antibiotics in animal feed in the 1970s, the FDA left its affirmative sanction of the practice in place without initiating a process of considering withdrawal of its sanction. So, some groups that oppose the widespread use of antibiotics for “sub-therapeutic” reasons (i.e., on animals that are not ill) brought suit to require the FDA to initiate the process of considering withdrawal of its sanction. Under the court’s ruling, if drug manufacturers can prove that it is safe, however, these antibiotics can remain on the market.
As to the merits of the court’s decision, the FDA was established for the ostensible purpose of protecting people from the type of dangers posed by the use of antibiotics in the feed of healthy animals. And, once we’ve set up an agency to perform a certain function, it should do its job. So, the court certainly had a point when it told the agency to do what it was created to do and I do not fault the court for doing so. And, insofar as the court’s ruling requires the FDA to consider removal of its official sanction of the practice, it is worthwhile.
That said, I see two potential problems with the court’s decision and with this issue in general: 1) the court’s decision doesn’t actually require the FDA to withdraw approval, despite the fact that it found this use of antibiotics problematic many years ago – likely, BigPharma will find some way to keep their drugs in our animals’ feed; 2) to the extent the court’s ruling may be read to require MORE regulatory oversight of any practice, that would have troubling implications for real food producers. Hear me out.
Once the genie of telling power-hungry bureaucrats to regulate something is out of the bottle, it’s nearly impossible to allow market choices to correct the problem (one need only consider the horrendous effects of subsidizing Big Ag to recognize the dangers of government intervention). Because the law does not require the use of antibiotics in livestock feed (it only allows it), consumers are still able to decide for themselves not to buy meat from animals fed antibiotic-laden feed. This is one of many reasons I purchase grass-fed and pastured meat. Choices like this form the foundation of a marketplace solution to an unsustainable practice, which would be preferable to agency enforcement actions (even if such actions are currently taken only against feed lots).
Something many in the real food/local food movement often seem to lose sight of is that overregulation harms us ALL. Rarely do agencies stop with the big guys. Heck, rarely do they START with them; more often, they target “alternative” agriculture with their onerous regulations. Once the FDA starts meddling in farming operations (for the ostensible purpose of protecting food safety), it’s only a matter of time before sustainable practices are targeted for regulation, too. And, let’s not forget – it was the FDA that officially sanctioned the practice of feeding antibiotics to livestock in the first place.
The moral of this story is that the government causes more problems than it solves and leaves the rest of us to face the consequences. Had the FDA stayed out of this in the first place, we may never have seen the proliferation of antibiotics in animal feed that we’ve seen since the 1950s.
Uncle Sam giveth and Uncle Sam taketh away. It would be better just to keep Uncle Sam out of it.
- The Real Food Lawyer